The Fires of Mordor

April 5, 2015

We’re right in the middle of a multi-week theme here at the Thornapple Blog, so if you are just dropping in you might find it helpful to go all the way back to February if you want to get the full treatment. But the synopsis is that we’re taking a dive into moral dietetics: the ethics of what you choose to eat, and we’re focusing especially on the way that what you choose to eat affects you, rather than someone else. This points us directly to overeating (though we should probably come back and do undereating sooner or later). I’ve been trying to resist the idea that overweight people have no one to blame but themselves.

So let me just make things easy this week by pointing to the most popular alternative. If obesity is not just a problem of poor decision making by individuals, we need to find some other way to explain why people are getting fat in unusually large numbers. If we find that the increasing rate of obesity has been caused by something other than a lot of spectacularly bad behavior by people acting one by one on their own initiative, then we can replace the individualistic theory of ethical responsibility for unhealthy eating habits with some better account.

And the most popular alternative is: THE FOOD INDUSTRY! This would be a theme we’ve touched upon many times in the Thronapple Blog. People are getting fat because the conglomeration of industrial farming, industrial scale milling, slaughtering, processing and distribution companies, the food manufacturers and finally the retailers (in the form of grocery and restaurant chains) are doing things that cause people to eat badly.

I think there is absolutely no doubt that this is true, but the tricky part comes because there are many rather different ways in which it is true. And here’s a warning: it’s going to take me a couple of more weeks to tire of this theme, and even then I won’t really have exhausted things.

So for this week—again with the idea of keeping things simple—let’s just start out that there are two big lines of thought to follow through when we probe how the food industry is the cause of people eating badly. The first is that people are eating the wrong food, the second is that whatever they are eating, they are eating too much. My sense is that food activists have sort of picked up primarily on the first line of thought. We’ll come back and revisit that in another blog down the road, so for now let’s just close off this week’s entry by noticing some dead obvious things about eating too much.

First, eating has become incredibly convenient of late. A few weeks back we noticed that the auto industry had to accommodate their product line to the convenience of food by adding cupholders to their vehicles. Even the French and Germans have done this, at least on the models that they sell in the United States. If it were not so incredibly easy to pull in and scarf a taco, some fries or shake, it’s entirely reasonable to think that people might not do it with such insane frequency.

Second, the food industry itself is maniacally proud of how inexpensive food has become. Back in 1965, a McDonald’s hamburger cost 15¢. It was 240 ready calories for nothing but pocket change, and certainly marked a step in the direction of eating more for less. If we just take inflation into account, the McDonald’s hamburger should cost $1.13 in today’s money. It’s actually more than that now, but you do have some choices at the Golden Arches. In 2015 the McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” boasts four hot food items. The McDouble with 340 calories, the double cheeseburger with 380 calories, the McChicken sandwich with 370 calories and an order of chicken McNuggets with an astonishing 940 calories. The healthiest thing on the Dollar Menu would be the soft baked oatmeal raisin cookie at only 150 calories.

In 2015, you’ll have to spend more to eat less. I know, I know. It’s obvious, but our love of obscurity notwithstanding here at the Thornapple blog, it doesn’t hurt to state the obvious now and again.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


2 thoughts on “The Fires of Mordor

  1. Dear Mountain Top Guru and Philosophical Guide,

    In two volumes or less, please summarize the ethical standards of a hypothetical couple I know whose main reasons for moving to Florida include
    Huge fresh gulf shrimp year round
    Grapefruit and oranges straight off the tree in Jan and Feb,
    Ruskin tomatoes and
    Plant city strawberries.

    Submit consulting fee statement to
    Our former address.

    A friend of the hypothetical couple


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